Since September 11, 2001, Americans have understandably felt more uneasy about security. When you visit Washington, D.C., you may fairly conclude that billions earmarked for "Homeland Defense" will transform our nation's capital into an enormous barricade. In years past, tourists would flock to Senate and House office buildings to meet their leadership. Today, as gates, jersey barriers, and magnetometers greet visitors, it comes as no surprise that the hottest attraction in Washington is the International Spy Museum (on F Street and 9th). Here, a brilliant team of former spies put together an extraordinary journey through America's exciting history of cloak and dagger. (As an aside, buy your tickets now: This museum is phenomenally popular.) One reason the museum is so popular is that in times of uncertainty, good intelligence provides us with security. Sadly, intelligence is a necessary but rare commodity and, in Washington, often in short supply.
After my journey through the world of spy-counterspy, I decided to re-examine my growing obsession with security. I have embraced a variety of new technologies in recent months to protect my world. (Many of the things described below are more fun than practical, but is that so wrong?) Here's a slightly paranoid journey through the latest spy and security "toys" we've been playing with — devices that will give you more control over your environment and enhance the way you look at the world. From new camera systems that alert you by email with a video clip of an intruder to a host of handheld devices that let you secure data; from a signature authentication device to software that roots out other software planted on your computer to spy on you.
Has ubiquitous computing destroyed our ability to achieve privacy? The trend surely seems that way. Recently, I discovered that my gentle Internet surfing resulted in literally 117 (as of today's count) "spyware" programs left on just one of the computers I use. These spyware programs, which I never knowingly installed, recorded websites I visited and transmitted information back to various marketing companies, advertising companies, and others. Naturally, these companies collected a slew of data about me without my permission.
Without a marvelous program from Webroot, called "Spysweeper," this privacy invasion could have gone on indefinitely. Mostly, these "adware" programs are harmless. But the most pernicious "spy" software, known as "key loggers" are not. After several months using this program, one day "Spysweeper" discovered a hacker had penetrated my network and installed a program that systematically captured my keystrokes. This hidden program, called "Keythief," was forwarding my passwords and more to the butthead who installed the program. It was a relief when the "Spysweeper" program "quarantined" the intruder software before significant damage was done. (Well worth the $29 price tag and you can even download a free trial.) Let that be a lesson to folks out there: secure your wireless network now!
ControlKey and SecuriKey
One way to prevent unauthorized access to your computer is to enable strong password protection. The problem is that most passwords can be easily cracked or, as frequently, observed by others. I must know about a dozen of my colleagues' passwords and too many know mine. Good passwords are almost impossible to remember (try saying "24tsdfT5R1FFV$$3XDG" three times fast) and usually you have to remember several.
ControlKey and SecuriKey are two new products that use an actual USB key-like device to control access to your computer instead. For parents who want to restrict their children's access to the computer and to govern which computer programs they can use, ControlKey is a $59 access solution. For more professional use, SecuriKey ($149) provides two access "keys" (good if you lose one) to control access to a single computer. These systems are easily configurable and offer various security options (for example, allowing different users different levels of access.) If you are fool enough to lose both of these secure keys (something I would likely do), once you have registered, these companies can provide replacements.
Clip Drive Bio
Taking security-on-a-USB-drive to a higher level, Clip-Drive has a new device that allows you to carry public and private encrypted documents and no password is needed. That's because these new "Bio" drives incorporate a tiny but highly accurate biometric fingerprint reader that identifies the registered user. These new drives come in a variety of sizes: from 64 Megabytes all the way to 2 Gigabytes. There is something miraculous about having a device so small recognizing you by the tiny distinctive ridges of your fingers.
Time Scout Monitor
Speaking of controlling children's viewing habits, I recall my parents' ingenious efforts to restrict television in our home by literally taking the power plug with them, for example. Now that the statute of limitations for childish pranks has lapsed, let me confess their more ingenious children rather precariously but successfully hot-wired the TV set. Now with my own TV- and videogame-loving children, I'm delighted "Card Access" created a device that gives you ultimate control.
The "Time Scout Monitor" physically locks onto to the power plug of your TV, videogame console, or any other electronic device, and then plugs into the wall.
Between the two is a card scanner. (I can see you smiling because you know where this is going.) You give your children a swipe card, and give yourself the power to assign how much time each card will have to activate the device. With one swipe, you can add or subtract time for any of the three account cards your children can hold.
When time runs low, a warning beep goes off, so your child can save their videogame or whatever they are doing. They can only get more time if you let them. And the little rascals can't unplug the Time Scout. ($90 and they'll hate you for it.)
Having recently returned from IBM's research labs in Hawthorne, N.Y., we have seen some remarkable security technologies that will soon be used to protect transactions of all kinds. One software product, being tested somewhere IBM would not tell us, does a remarkable job protecting your signature. Right now, most junior high school students can do a good impression of, say, Mom's signature on a report card. But IBM has studied how people sign their names and invented inexpensive devices and software that easily differentiates a signature from a forgery. Soon, expect on shopping in a store without bothering to bring a credit card. Enter your secret code and just sign your name. Even if someone has your secret code and has studied your signature, it is nearly impossible for them to sign your name precisely like you do it. The software can tell how fast you sign your name and what pressure you use, etc.
Another development IBM showed us is a security chip system that can only be described as "nuts." First, they have a secure chip with complex encryption algorithms (codes) in it. Then, they surround the chip with layer upon layer of materials: fine wires, hard cases, mucky goo, etc., all designed to foil snoopers who might want to crack open the chip's secrets with an electron microscope. At every layer, mishandling will result in the secret data being erased. It was an astonishing development.
IBM's Security Chip
I mention it, aside from the joy we all should feel about technological overkill, but because it reminds me to mention that I have now embraced the existing security chip embedded in IBM's latest line of laptops. (This is a junior version of what I've described above.) Ever since the key-logging incident I described above, I've tightened my own personal computer security. Should someone want to peer at what is on my hard-drive, they would have no luck. That's because on my IBM T40p, the embedded security chip must first be unlocked before the computer will display anything. The bad news is that I now have to remember an obscenely long password. The good news is that, unless you're the National Security Agency, people can't get my "precious secrets." (It does strike me as amusing that it could take someone a hundred years to try cracking the encryption scheme, only to find hundreds of out-of-focus pictures of my children.)
Let me conclude with an assortment of terrific security camera technologies I've been playing with. Speaking of IBM, several years ago, Big Blue incorporated a fascinating software program called "Odyssey Watchdog" in one of their laptops. When you attach a digital camera, your laptop suddenly becomes an astonishing video surveillance device. Though IBM no longer seems to offer that cool program, the folks who wrote the software have a professional suite of video security monitoring programs. "Remote Eyes" Watchdog Pro software controls as many as four different video cameras. When the software detects movement (and the tolerances can be quite precisely set) your computer can set off an alarm, email or page you, and forward a video of the suspicious movement. Although there are a number of similar programs on the market, I thought the "Odyssey Watchdog" software the best I've seen for sophisticated video camera monitoring for the "prosumer." The software is somewhat pricey: more than $600 for a two-camera system, but it does the job well.
Ready to do Crime Scene Investigation at home? How I managed the self-control to save this "Proscope" for last is beyond me. This little marvel is a 250X power microscope that clearly is designed for professionals but even a seven-year-old can joyously operate. My seven-year-old, for example, had an uproarious time examining his father's receding hairline, his nostrils, his belly-button and everything else a curious child would want to look at way too closely! The Proscope comes with five different lenses and connects to the computer by USB. The attached software is great for capturing stills or moving video of whatever forensic science you would like to perform. I was delighted to discover, in detail, the origin of the mysterious stain on my sweater (pea soup) and the astonishing micro engraving on the new $20 dollar bill. After several hours of continuous use, my wife suggested we put the thing down or I'd have to talk with her lawyer. Even though this unit has been out there for a while, no high-tech sleuth or school or gadget-nut can be without the Proscope… as long as they have at least $250 and up.
By Daniel Dubno